Thursday, May 2, 2024

The Shadow Key - Susan Stokes-Chapman

I really loved Susan Stokes-Champman's debut, 'Pandora', it felt like a book that couldn't do a thing wrong for me, so I've been looking forward to whatever she wrote next with a great deal of anticipation. I'm not sure that The Shadow Key quite met my very high hopes for it, but I did enjoy it a lot, and I am recommending it to anyone who likes a nice bit of gothic fiction with just a hint of the supernatural.

This one takes place in Wales, it starts with an old man waking on a dark night hearing some odd sounds and then a light in his library where no light should be. From there we follow young Henry Talbot, a disgraced London surgeon on his way to Wales to take a post as a private family physician and village doctor. It's been an uncomfortable journey, the people he meets are unaccountably hostile, and when he reaches his destination the family he's meant to tend to are odder than he expected.

The owner of the estate is a young woman (Linette) who dresses in her long dead fathers clothes, her mother seems to be insane, and the uncle who gave Henry the job is mendacious at best, and there's an odd smell of sulphur that keeps cropping up. The villagers,with the exception of the local minister and a very beautiful young herbalist called Rowena, are more hostile than ever and there's a concerted effort to scare Henry away. 

Meanwhile Henry begins to suspect that the previous Doctor, the elderly man from the prologue, didn't die from natural causes, that there are some very strange features to Lady Gwen's supposed madness and there's a lot Linette isn't telling him. There's stories about hellfire clubs, and a lot of welsh folklore added to the brew as well. It's not the biggest spoiler to say (though skip past this bit if you want) that there's the suggestion of Devil worship and unnatural forces at play.

The last is where Susan Stokes-Chapman is especially good. She's expert at treading the line where one can believe what one wants - that there is a demon somewhere under the mountain, that there's an entirely logical and scientific explanation for everything, or both are true at once. It's a neat trick to be able to pull off and she does it brilliantly. 

Where I feel the book goes awry is in the very tight time scale - everything seems to happen in little more that a week, but it reads as if it's longer and it would make more sense if it was. the author talks about how long she went over deadline with this book and how many revisions she made to it - at times I'd say it feels overworked. Relationships become unfeasibly close after a couple of meetings, getting from Wales to London by boat in the 1780s with time to transact business whilst away takes barely a week, which is surely unlikely. Henry becomes a proficient rider after sitting on a horse once.  A flintlock pistol is described as working like a revolver. 

In Pandora a convincing 18th century London is created with a few broad brushstrokes and no labouring the point. 18th century Wales feels like a more nebulous projection, and maybe because of the speed at which everything happens like it belongs in the 19th century with all the advantages of steam power (and revolvers). That Henry manages to overcome an almost murderous hostility in barely a week seems optimistic too, although Linette's reasoning for why anyone English is hated quite as much as they are feels weak too.

Better is Lady Gwen who turns out to be an interestingly problematic character for her daughter to understand and nicely complicated for the reader - so overall it's an enjoyable and atmospheric book with a lot to offer even if I didn't fall in love with it the way I did Pandora.

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